Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians | Contributed
Teachers and staff at Noli Indian School on the Soboba Indian Reservation recently took the opportunity to honor residential and boarding school survivors and remember those who never returned home by observing Orange Shirt Day. Also called National Day for Truth and Reconciliation or National Day of Remembrance, it is observed yearly on September 30 in Canada and the United States.
Noli students were asked to wear orange and to reflect on the Native Americans who were removed from their homes and placed into residential or boarding schools where many suffered abuse and some never returned home. The “Every Child Matters” movement, highlighting the damage the residential school system did to the well-being of Indigenous children, was started by Chief Fred Robbins, a former student of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, BC, Canada. He started Orange Shirt Day to ensure that residential school survivors are not forgotten. It also serves as a healing journey for the survivors and a commitment by all who wear an orange shirt that every child matters.
Orange Shirt Day initiated, and continues to allow for, conversations about residential schools on an international scale, and allows for meaningful discussions of the impacts and legacies of residential schools. The orange shirt was inspired by Phyllis Webstad’s experience of having her orange shirt, given to her by her grandmother, taken away upon arrival to the St. Joseph Mission residential school when she was six years old. The orange color has always reminded Webstad of her experience and “how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.” She added that the experience left her feeling invisible and worthless and affected the way she lived for much of her life.
Noli Principal Donovan Post said the school offers the event in response to what happened to Native Americans in the past. “I want the students to understand that there is a past history of genocide and assimilation that has caused our People tremendous pain,” he said. “I want them to understand the importance of having a sovereign government that can fund and house a school that gives Native students an alternative that could fit their needs.”
The school day began with a circle in the courtyard where Soboba Tribal member Damon Miranda performed a smudging of staff and students. The cleansing ritual is used to help free participants from any negativity, anxieties or dark moods or emotions they may be experiencing. He then said a prayer that was followed by some bird songs and a closing prayer. A brief overview of why “Every Child Matters” was given by Culture Department Coordinator/Instructor Tashina Miranda Ornelas.
“Today is an important day of honor, recognition and support for our People and for our communities who have been affected by the boarding school, residential school and day school experiences,” she said. “There is not one Indigenous person, child or mentor, who stands here today who is not a survivor of the boarding school experience. All of our families have relatives who were forcibly taken from loving homes, families, traditions, languages, ceremonies and customs to be indoctrinated into the so-called American way of life, the American way of education.”
Ornelas said the outcome not only changed the communities, lifestyles and traditions of Indigenous People but left a missing piece in their hearts since some of the children never returned home. Unmarked graves were found at the boarding school sites in Canada. “Their spirits lingered in those places,” she said. “Today we honor those spirits, we honor our relatives, and we honor those ancestors who endured.”
She said it was also a day to honor the fact that all the students there that day are survivors. “We are here; we have endured and will continue to endure because many of you are making a concerted effort and dedication each day to wake up, show up to school and be mindful of your spirit.”
Ornelas encouraged teachers to share a video during their Advisory class period that would give some background for students. Narrated by Phyllis Webstad, who shares that she is a third generation residential school survivor, said her story is not unique and that the 150,000 children across Canada who were sent to the 130-plus schools all have a story to tell. The schools operated from the late 1800s until the last one closed in the 1990s and of those attending, it’s estimated that over 5,000 children died while under residential school care. Many survivors are still dealing with the trauma of abuse experienced at these schools. Orange Shirt Day is a time to mourn the deaths and abuse of generations of Indigenous children at residential and boarding schools, as well as honor their stories and the healing of survivors.
Starting in the 19th century, the Canadian and U.S. governments and various church groups established residential schools for Indigenous children with the goal of assimilating them and thus eradicating Indigenous Peoples, their languages and cultures. In 1920 in Canada, under the Indian Act, it became compulsory for every Indigenous child to attend a residential school and unlawful for them to attend any other educational institution. In the United States, the Indian Civilization Act Fund of 1819, the Peace Policy of 1869 and various denominations of the Christian Church adopted an Indian boarding school policy with the goal to “Kill the Indian, save the man.” These children were forcibly removed from their families, communities and cultures and kept in residential schools where they were expected to assimilate by cutting their hair, abandoning traditional clothing, giving up their names and taking on English names, and were penalized for speaking their languages and practicing their cultural beliefs. Children were separated from their families for long periods, sometimes more than four years, and were taught their cultures were inferior. In addition to cultural genocide, residential schools were also the sites of horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse perpetrated against these children. Between 1819 and 1969, the U.S. operated or supported 408 boarding schools. At the time of a 1969 report, 34,605 children were enrolled in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding schools and 15,450 enrolled in BIA day schools. Since its start in June 2021, the Federal Indian Boarding School initiative has identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 of these schools.
At Noli, Ornelas oversees the popular beading club, whose members created some beautiful pieces that were raffled off to Noli’s middle and high school students who wore orange. They could choose from wristlets, bracelets, earrings and more made by current club members and alumni who have stayed connected to the school to support and donate items. She said “beading is medicine and we do it for that reason.” Staff members also contributed to the raffles and about 10 items were given away at each of the two lunch periods which also gave students a chance to play dodgeball with the help of ASB leaders.
Ornelas told the Noli students, “Today and every day, every child matters. You matter. Your experience matters. And today, most especially, I hope you all feel the support you need to continue on your educational path towards your personal definition of success.”
She said offering these events is important beyond the school’s campus. “The public needs to understand the gravity of this situation and its impact on Indian education today,” Ornelas said.
For more information, https://orangeshirtday.org.
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